Written by: Mitchell Beer

Oil and gas workers around the world are getting set to vote with their feet, with more than half of them saying they want work in renewable energy and 43 percent across all forms of energy saying they plan to leave their jobs in the next five years, according to the latest in a series of annual work force surveys commissioned by recruitment firm Brunel International and Oilandgasjobsearch.com.

The survey results, published Tuesday, show that oil and gas “risks a huge work force shortage,” Reuters reports.

“Oil and gas companies have faced growing pressure from investors, activists, and governments to fight climate change, making them less attractive to young professionals,” the news agency adds. So “as energy demand and prices recover strongly around the world, many companies are finding it hard to recruit again.”

The proportion of oil and gas workers planning a move to renewables is up to 56 percent this year, from 38.8 percent in 2020, and 51 percent of renewables workers said they had entered a new sector in the last 12 months, the survey concludes. That result is still short of the more than two-thirds of Canadian oil and gas workers who said they wanted to retrain for net-zero jobs, in a survey released in mid-July by Edmonton-based Iron & Earth.

“With more workers gravitating towards the renewables sector, it’s likely that the industry will continue to see an exit from those in traditional sectors,” the Brunel report states. “The higher salaries offered by the renewables and mining sectors are making roles in these areas more appealing, which adds to the pressure faced by recruiters in the oil and gas sector.”

Some 82 percent of those recruiters said one in 10 of the jobs they were trying to fill had been open for more than three months, and 10 percent of employers have had to bring back retirees to combat the skills shortage.

“The world has been turned upside down in recent years and, like many industries, the energy industry is experiencing significant changes in its hiring and employment trends,” said Brunel CEO Jilko Andringa. “Global competition for candidates is fierce, and we need to rise to meet these challenges together as an industry.”

The global challenge is showing up in Canada, as well, with the Canadian Association of Energy Contractors identifying a lack of skilled workers is the single greatest risk to the prospect of increased oil and gas activity, the Globe and Mail reports. “Years of economic contraction and instability in the industry have led to people turning their back on the oil and gas sector,” the Globe writes, citing CAOEC President Mark Scholz.

The industry has raised wages by 10 percent, and has begun reaching out for workers to make the long commute from the Maritimes, Quebec, and Ontario to the western oilpatch. But it isn’t an easy or immediate sell. “We are now in a situation where finally, after seven years, we’re seeing elevated prospects and growth, but it’s going to take some time to send the right signals of stability within this sector in order to bring back that complement of workers,” Scholz said.

“We’re already starting to hear some of our members indicate to our clients, who are the oil and gas producers, that we don’t have any rigs available. And it’s largely due to crew shortages,” Scholz added, in an interview with CBC. “So it’s going to have an impact on our ability to increase production.”

In a mid-September profile of an Estevan, Saskatchewan oilfield services contractor who was having trouble recruiting workers, the Globe’s Emma Graney reported that job stability and a 40-hour work week were emerging as higher priorities for workers than the high wages they could once earn in the industry, as a new reality of unsteady or crashing oil prices entered its eighth year.

The work force gaps extend to oil and gas well cleanups, as well, The Canadian Press wrote in mid-October. “Whether it’s for new programs or abandonment operations, we’re all going to be faced with crew shortages,” Scholz said at the time. “So will (cleanup) be impacted? Yeah, it will.”

Days later, the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices warned that fossils’ inability to attract capital was also putting jobs at risk.

While the pandemic is the immediate cause of the labour shortage, PetroLMI Vice-President Carol Howes noted that cratering oil prices drove oil and gas employment down by 21,200, or 29 percent, between 2013 and 2019, before the pandemic wiped out another 6,300 positions last year. “It has been building over the last number of years, ever since the oil price decline at the end of 2014,” she told CBC. “We saw layoffs starting to occur, we saw a decline in activity, and a lot of workers went elsewhere—whether that was to a different province, a different industry, or a different job.”

Along the way, the rest of the Canadian economy produced 42 jobs for every oil and gas position lost, leaving fossils to take credit for less than 1 percent of the country’s direct employment, economist Jim Stanford found in an analysis early this year.

The Brunel survey detected a high degree of job volatility in all corners of the wider energy and extraction sector, with 44 percent of workers in oil and gas, 42 percent each in mining, power, and renewables, and 39 percent in nuclear saying they were looking for a career change in the next five years. Among the top-performing employees who’ve been promoted at least twice in the last year, 28 percent were planning their departures.

“The future looks increasingly difficult as workers change their priorities,” the survey report states. “Breaking these statistics down by age, we find that young workers aged between 25 and 29 are 25 percent more likely than older workers to want to leave the energy industry,” motivated primarily by lifestyle changes, low salaries, and lack of benefits.

But while the Brunel results spanned multiple industries, the sections of the energy sector that actually have a future in a decarbonizing world reported steady growth last year, despite the pandemic shutdowns. In its annual jobs inventory released in October, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) estimated that renewable energy employment grew to 12 million world-wide in 2020, from 11.5 million in 2019.

“Renewables fared better than conventional energy during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the agency wrote, in a year “shaped first by delays and later by surges of activity.”

IRENA found that the global solar photovoltaics industry created 3.98 million jobs last year, followed by bioenergy at 3.52 million, hydropower at 2.18 million, wind at 1.25 million, and solar heating and cooling at 820,000.

“As the energy transition picks up speed, the demand for new technologies such as battery storage and green hydrogen is increasing,” the Abu Dhabi-based agency added. “As countries start supporting the growth of a green hydrogen market, an increase of about two million jobs is expected from 2030 to 2050.”

China led the world last year with more than 4.7 million renewable energy jobs, followed by the European Union with 1.3 million, Brazil with 1.2 million, and the United States with 838,400.

In October, as well, in a review of dozens of studies between 2009 and 2020, the World Resources Institute, New Climate Economy, and the International Trade Union Confederation determined that solar and wind produce 2.7 and 2.8 times more jobs, respectively, than fossil fuels per million dollars invested.

Header Image Credit: Zbynek Burival/Unsplash

This story originally appeared in The Energy Mix and is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.